Friday, June 21, 2013

Joss Whedon brushes up his Shakespeare with 'Much Ado'

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 9:08 AM

MERRY WARRIORS: Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing
You could easily spot the Joss Whedon fans at an Atlanta screening of the Shakespeare adaptation Much Ado About Nothing. When Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk first appear as members of the local watch, updated as security guards, excitement rippled through the audience, as if they'd seen old friends. Clearly admirers of Whedon's TV shows, they recognized Fillion as Captain Mal Reynolds from the beloved sci-fi western "Firefly" and Lenk from his hilarious recurring role as a nerd turned would-be supervillain on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

For Much Ado About Nothing, the director/adaptor cast numerous familiar faces from "The Whedonverse" and filmed the comedy in and around his own home. Viewers can feel like guests at a lovely reunion event, but only to a point. A black-and-white, modern-dress Shakespeare that feels both passionate and detached, less resembles one of Whedon's trademark genre hybrids than a brainy, economical film experiment from Woody Allen or Robert Altman, although it's perfectly charming on its own terms.

Much Ado reteams Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who played star-crossed lovers and monster fighters on "Angel," as Shakespeare's famously fractious couple, Beatrice and Benedick. Equally tart-tongued, Beatrice and Benedick trade insults in a "merry war" whenever they're in each other's presence. Rather than say "You two should get a room, already!" their friends, including Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) come up with a plausible scheme to make them fall in love with each other.

While Beatrice and Benedick represent mature romance, puppy love unfolds between the Don's young right-hand man Claudio (Fran Kranz of The Cabin in the Woods) and heiress Hero (Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg, a.k.a. Agent Coulson from the Marvel superhero movies). Claudio woos Hero through elaborate courtly rituals easily derailed by the plots of Don John (Sean Maher), a nasty aristocrat with nothing better to do than ruin other people's good time.

Much Ado About Nothing gives Amy Acker an overdue shot at a juicy role on the big screen, and she's a delight, bringing physical comedy and traces of sadness to Beatrice's verbal felicities. But Denisof's performance seems like a miscalculation on the part of the actor, the director, or both. Although Benedick's a renowned wisecracker - "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter" - Denisof establishes him as a surly brooder. One can only assume that Whedon and Denisof wanted Benedick to start out as "heavy" in order to lighten him up later as a lovesick goofball. The punch doesn't land, though, and he comes across as such a joyless jerk that we think Beatrice deserves better.

In the story's back half, Don John's plots pay off, turning friends, lovers, and family members against each other. More broadly comedic stagings of Much Ado struggle with the material's change in tone, but Whedon, an old hand at blending comedy and melodrama, skillfully negotiates the turn. If the play's Elizabethan attitudes towards virginity and marriage seem outdated, they still resonate with today's mixed messages about "slut-shaming" and female sexuality.

Whedon also shrewdly directs "the watch" to underplay their buffoonery, so Fillion makes Constable Dogberry slow-witted but charming, as opposed to a typical blowhard. When a character declares, "What wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light," Fillion and Lenk share a look that seems to say, "Great success!"

Two decades ago, Thor director Kenneth Branagh played Benedick to his then-wife Emma Thompson in a luscious, sun-drenched take on Much Ado. While Branagh at times overplayed his effort to be a feel-good movie, Whedon tries a little too hard to seem like he's not trying too hard. The black-and-white photography, low-key line-readings and sultry jazz arrangements of Shakespearean songs give the film a cosmopolitan vibe that at times feels a little too languid and risks losing the audience's attention. Nevertheless, Much Ado About Nothing's ability to open up Shakespeare for modern viewers seems downright heroic.

Much Ado About Nothing. 3 stars. Directed by Joss Whedon. Stars Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., June 21. At area theaters.

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